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The first two steps to a workplace revolution

Updated: Feb 29

I know we need a revolution…but what does that mean!?

This post is for the pragmatic people out there who are sick of staying the same and want to see systemic change happen. Like real, sustainable change, not just empty buzzwords that people learned at a conference and now parrot at work everyday. You sing “you won’t break my soul” but you also have bills to pay. And since you are not one to take it lying down, you are ready to roll up your sleeves and Beyonce your workplace.

Beyonce descending on silver horse gif

Okay cool. So we all agree we need a revolution. But where do we even start??

Give me a clear vision I can get behind and then show me the path forward. Can someone please tell me what it means to bring the revolution in action!?!? 

Usually this part gets crickets because it is a lot easier to let outrage roar, but finding the application, the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other next steps, requires real commitment, investment, and dedication. It’s the long game and most people don’t have the stamina or realistic understanding of what they’re signing up for. 

If you are a TLDR person, here are the first two steps: Have a clear vision and get people’s buy-in.

If you like to be firehosed then continue reading for deets and a very embarrassing personal story.

(Disclaimer: no way I can fit all the things in one blog post so this will probably have to be an ongoing convo. But if you don’t want to take the scenic route, join the coaching group for emerging leaders. We don’t have an official name yet. And if you are a seasoned leader, we love you but you have to go hang out at Basecamp. That is more your speed because the level of responsibility and complexity for you is something else. I think emerging leaders is a party while Basecamp has more boardroom vibes. But that’s just me. Check it out for yourself and decide.)

Something I learned in one of my previous jobs where I was brought in to change the culture was: “before you move a fence, learn about why it was put there to begin with. You might be removing something that is needed.” When you are going to guide and navigate an entire organization to shift their culture you first have to mind their fears, concerns, and why they continue to reinforce patterns that are dysfunctional and downright hurting them. 

The Big Lebowski stirring a drink with a quizical expression gif

Side note: I’m obsessed with the psychology and science of change. I trained in NLP which in a nutshell is the science of change and meaning making. Before you can change something you need to understand the purpose it serves. And if you understand what purpose some of your impulses, habits, cravings, desires, drives, reactions, etc. are serving, then you can change them because you can consciously pick a re-route for your brain. You can also pick to extinguish the behavior but I think that's a waste of momentum. If you already have super strong and deep neuropathways, instead of abandoning them to create new ones, use them to your advantage whenever possible. This is a topic I geek out on and I am going to use all my willpower to not go down a rabbit hole explaining this but know that you can totally make use of the powerful momentum you’ve built in unhealthy habits by recycling it to get the results you want. If you know how to do this with yourself, you have almost everything you need for self-mastery and outer influence. I got foundational training in hypnosis and let me tell you! It’s so fun. You can trek uphill trying to change or you can just get on the lift. That’s what my training was about. Okay, end of side note.

So if you have ambitious goals to change your company culture or even just the way we do work in America, you first have to understand how we got here and what purpose those blocks that prevent people from advancing or having a more positive experience in their work environment serve and how they fit in the overarching picture. Whatever you want to revolutionize, to actually be effective and have any level of influence, first and foremost you must take time to understand from a place of curiosity, why anything exists to begin with. What purpose did it serve? Where was it successful? Nothing persists that wasn’t at some point adaptable and productive. At some point, the things you want to change were beneficial. 

In the book The Art of War, Sun Tzu said you have to respect your opponent, otherwise you’ll underestimate them. That’s how you lose. So when you are being dismissive and minimizing those who don’t think like you, who don’t prioritize like you, and don’t appreciate the world like you, remember that you’re growing the gap even further and change requires actual intimacy, depth of understanding, and influence. You can’t influence those who feel like you can’t see or understand them, or simply like you don’t care to learn how they got there. 

Will Ferrel saying "periodt" with hand gesture gif

We’re lucky to have the fervor and zeal of people who speak against what they see is wrong in the workplace and in our society at large. But both science and religion tell us that the change that snowballs into actual cultural shifts is not in talking to “the other” with disdain. It’s quite the opposite. It’s love. It’s respect. It’s trust. It's deep connection. The Proverbs say that “soft words turn away wrath.” If you want to acquire the skill to deescalate defensiveness, you have to be willing to speak from a place of empathy and love. There is no room for a “gotcha!” here. 

Back to science. The tipping point for shifting social norms is a 25% adoption rate of a new idea put into action. And that change in a community is not driven by influencers and prominent people. They’re in fact, the symptom that something new has taken hold. Kind of like when the New York Times publishes an article announcing a new trend, like birria quesatacos, but we’ve been eating those in the Yakima Valley forever. By the time big publications are announcing something edgy, it has been embraced by the populace for quite some time. It is safe to publish about it because people have mostly acclimated to it. So if they don’t influence communities to embrace new ideas, who does? It’s actually the people that are well connected in their social circles but on the outer edges, those who travel back and forth between different circles are ones that carry an idea and spread it. Because of their emotional connection and relational equity, how much they’ve invested in their relationships, they speak and others listen. They have the trust of their people. 

Think of it like a virus spread. Remember when we had covid pods? A group of people that swore to stick together and not hang out with other people to prevent the spread of the virus but of course people broke the rule. The cheaters who broke the rules moved between pods and began infecting people. This example is totally gross and we are all trying our hardest to forget about the covid years, but you get what I am saying. Those who flow between social networks are the ones that carry ideas from one pod to another. And they can do this because people trust them and are willing to consider what they want to say. If you don’t have people’s trust, they don’t care for what you have to say, especially if it requires them to confront previously unchallenged assumptions about the world and professional dynamics.

If you want to dive into this topic, get Damon Centola’s book “How to Make Big Things Happen.” He is a social scientist and has made years and years of research and data compilation very digestible for those of us who have neither the access to science research nor the time and bandwidth to parse through everything and distill it into actionable conclusions. 

So! First step of a revolution is to get clarity. What exactly are you wanting to build? Because raging against what you don’t like might feel like something, it gets the people going! But it doesn’t really leave much to show for after the emotions die down. And actually, when you indulge in outrage without an action plan, you end up working yourself into a hole of hopelessness. There is a robust science of hope.  And taking reactionary action without mindfully planning for sustainability will only lead to burnout and cynicism and then apathy and nothing changes. To avoid that, you have to have a clear vision. Get granular with it. 

Man talking to another man on treadmill gif

Step two, you are going to need allies and people who buy-in to your vision and want to commit to the work required for the revolution to be successful. Know that you won’t ever convert someone with a sanctimonious preaching session. People don’t care what you think should be instead of what is. Criticism will only shut down their heart. But people will listen when they can sense that you truly know them and care about them and understand why they do what they do. The lady in accounting that drives you crazy because she is always running around like chicken little yelling that the sky is falling? First, understand her reasons for it. And when you validate and connect to where she is coming from, she will be willing to consider a different way to engage with people. Want to know a shortcut? Check your personal agenda at the door and actually just really take an interest. When you come in asking questions pretending to be curious but you carry an agenda to get them to change their mind or disposition, people can totally feel that. The energy is thick and heavy and it has the same feeling as coercion. Their walls will immediately go up. 

Man making ick face gif

I don’t know if this is common knowledge but much to my dismay, I learned way later in life that hard work doesn’t make you successful at work. But being likable does. And I resented it. I hated that I had to put energy toward being likable when I much preferred to just do my job well and overachieve in that way. In total cosmic joke fashion, my path of growth was to loosen the grip on my “work hard and excel” attitude, and learn to sincerely like to connect with the people around me. A mega introvert’s nightmare because it just doesn’t stop. Working in an office is a daily socializing frenzy. 

So it’s kind of like playground rules. If they don’t like you, they don’t invite you to play. In the professional world, people do business with those they like and coworkers support ideas and are willing to try something different if they like you. And they will like you if you sincerely care to understand them. So notice if people are inviting you to play or if they are buying into your ideas. (Get this book. An oldie but a goodie. It’s the foundation of having influence.) 

I used to be so judgemental when I pitched a new idea at work and people just wouldn’t even try to buy into it. I thought they were the problem. I thought they were narrow minded and only cared to keep the status quo going. Although that could potentially be true, the only thing I am able to see right now is how I failed to first invest in relationships and cared to understand what they were all about before asking them to consider an idea outside their comfort zone. My assumption that the merit of my ideas were good enough and worth exploring was quite frankly entitled. It’s mega embarrassing to say this and I am probably going to have a vulnerability hangover after being done with this post, but the whole point of our podcast, Confessions of a Terrible Leader, is sharing what we did wrong so you don’t have to. No one cared because I wasn’t investing enough or investing in the right ways. I didn’t take time to understand the dynamics and history of the team. Why didn’t they participate and take charge enough to own the success of the team? Why did they stay quiet and refuse to participate in meetings? I didn’t take time to understand the power dynamics with the leadership. Who are the people with the unofficial authority in the team?

Okay, so personal story time.

Years ago I was part of a team composed of beautiful and incredible people who didn’t seem to figure out how to flow together and I perceived that they had given up and accepted that this was their fate. Most of them were in self-preservation mode. They complained about one particular unofficial leader for her calloused approach and lack of awareness when she was offensive or her unwillingness to adjust when someone said “I didn’t like how you treated me.”. But here is the thing, they would complain a lot but do nothing about it. And they had just seemed to accept these unarticulated roles where she just set the pace and the rest of the team adjusted around her. They coped by saying nasty things about each other behind their backs. It was a cesspool of gossip and I constantly felt on edge because I didn’t want to make the mistake of associating with one clique or another and I certainly didn’t want the upper leadership to pool me together with the people who were constantly talking crap about them. But also! I felt lonely and it was not sustainable to not take sides. So I had crappy options: take a side and be stuck in that lane, or don’t take any sides and be ostracized and not trusted by the rest of the team. I had the most awful stomach ache and heartburn every day when I was going to work. A month into taking the job I knew I had made a huge mistake. And I also realized I had zero vetting skills to get a sense of the company culture during the interview process. I didn’t want to live that way but also I was worried about what that would look like on my resume if I quit too soon. I didn’t want to burn any bridges and I didn’t want to discredit my reputation in a small community where people constantly talk to each other and either approve or disapprove of job candidates during happy hours. By the time you get to the board room for an interview, people have already asked around about you and their decision is mostly made. So my options were not exciting. 

Taylor Swift saying immediately no gif

In hindsight, I can see how the tone deaf but well intended unofficial leader held the team together. It was effective because the official leaders were so disengaged and provided very little structure and support. Was it damaging people? Yes. Was it reinforcing a toxic work culture? Yes. But it was needed because no one else was stepping up. Without understanding that first, you can’t begin to bring about change in a cohesive and sustainable way. Anyway, one day I had enough and I kinda went off and copied the director in the email because I wanted to make sure my words were not twisted later on. I said “you need professional mental health help, I had to get a therapist just to deal with you.” I want to go live under a rock every time I think of that. Raise your hand if you also don’t have a blocked throat chakra and have been victimized by it more than once. 

Slow, embarrased raising of hand gif

I had escalated my concerns all the way up, short of talking to the CEO and there was nothing done. I did not have the experience and perspective and communication skills I have now. I wish that I could make that experience disappear because it’s embarrassing to me that I didn’t handle that with grace. If it was you, I would give you all the grace and validation and tell you that for that time and that place your reaction was super normal. But because it’s me, I have absolutely ridiculous standards for myself. That, coupled with the fact that I am an immigrant establishing a career in the professional world, creates a pressure to always get it perfectly right that is so real. So yeah. I wish I could completely wipe out the way I handled that because it’s embarrassing. 

Chrissy Tiegen massive cringe face gif

But the tide was strong and the patterns in the organizational culture deeply entrenched, so it was swept under the rug and nothing was done about it. As soon as I possibly could, I made an exit plan. Given my resume and professional experience I got an offer immediately for a better position and better salary. I lied and said I was leaving because of professional growth reasons. 

Forrest Gump running fast down the driveway and out the road gif

After learning everything that Transcend teaches on leadership and after all the learning about influence and everything there is to know about trauma and self-regulation, I can clearly see the part I played in those dynamics. Starting with believing that a good idea was enough and that professionalism made the need for relational equity obsolete. I didn’t invest in people so they were not motivated to take a leap with me. I didn’t play my part well and things continued to be the same. I had passion and zeal that wasn’t cultivated and I was reactionary, not having a clear goal of what to move toward. I wasn’t a leader. I was deeply unaware and carried trauma from a different workplace experience that colored my judgment. Even though it’s clear how the leadership was contributing to creating a toxic culture, I am only interested in how I participated because that is something I can change. The way that leaders create a toxic environment are usually three or five ways. It’s very boring. It’s very the same. But things are more interesting when we look into how we participated individually because we are so diverse. There are very unique ways in which we participate to amplify chaos, and we also have a ridiculous amount of influence and power to bring change, if only we get out of our own way. 

Ludacris singing Move, get out the way gif

Bringing a workplace revolution will require ego death. If you are ready for radical responsibility and commitment, you’ve come to the right place. 

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